A decade later, 2011 tornado ‘retains a grip on our memory’
Chan Thar Pye Son will never forget where he was 10 years ago on June 1.
Neither will Nick Tsagaris, Wendy Deshais nor Messina O’Grady Riley.
Nor will U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal.
Like thousands of others in Western Massachusetts, June 1 is a bittersweet anniversary. It marks the day a tornado swept through the region, carving a 38-mile path that left destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, uprooted thousands of trees and impacted several thousand lives.
The five represent just a few of the stories from the tornado. Just as the signs of the tornado are still there 10 years later, people’s recollections of that day have not faded with the passage of time.
“Every time I come back to Wilbraham, the lack of trees there always reminds me of the tornado,” Chan Thar Pye Son says.
Riley says the tornado is “a time in my life I’d like to remember and forget.”
Neal says the tornado was so violent and destructive across his 1st Congressional District that, even with everything else that has happened in the past year with the pandemic, the 2011 tornado “retains a grip on our memory.”
June 1, 2011 was a hot and humid day. Temperatures were in the 90s, and conditions were ripe for severe storms to develop.
At 1 p.m., the National Weather Service declared a tornado watch for lower Hampden County, meaning a tornado was possible, although not necessarily probable.
At 4 p.m., a 35-mph thunderstorm started churning across Hampden County, and the tornado watch was upgraded to a tornado warning. People were advised to seek shelter.
At 4:17 p.m. the first funnel cloud was spotted in Westfield.
Before it finally dissipated at 5:27 p.m. at the Southbridge-Charlton line, it cleaved a 38-mile path through much of Hampden County and parts of Worcester County. At places the path was up to a half-mile wide. It cut a path of destruction through Westfield, Agawam and West Springfield, before jumping the Connecticut River and then continuing through Springfield, Wilbraham, Monson, Brimfield, and Sturbridge.
It was measured as a F3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale used by the National Weather Service. To qualify as an F3, it had wind speeds of between 158 and 206 mph. It was the most destructive tornado to land in Massachusetts since an F4 tornado tore through Worcester County in 1953, killing 94.
A photograph by Barb Pitfido shows the tornado near the beginning of its path in Westfield.
Two people, Sergey Livchin, 23, and Angelica Guerrero, 39, died blocks away from each other in West Springfield. Guerrero died shielding her 15-year-old daughter as they took refuge in a bathtub while their house collapsed around them.
The third death was in Brimfield where Virginia Darlow, 52, was killed when the tornado hit her camper in the Village Green Campground.
Some 200 people were injured, more than 500 were left homeless and countless others had close calls. Along the nearly 40-mile route, the tornado damaged thousands of homes and buildings, and uprooted countless trees. It caused some $227 million in property damage.
It destroyed the South End Community Center in Springfield, the Elias Brookings School and Cathedral High School and St. Michael’s Academy in Springfield, but just missed the $67 million Minnechaug Regional High School under construction in Wilbraham.
For several months afterward, blue tarps on the roofs of damaged homes revealed its path. For years, residents who rebuilt and repaired damaged homes, lamented the loss of shade trees.
Even 10 years later, the scar across Western and Central Massachusetts remains visible in satellite images.
An aerial photo taken June 2, 2011 shows the tornado’s path through Brimfield and into Sturbridge. The Republican file / John Suchocki
Neal was at his office in Washington, D.C., doing work at his desk when his chief of staff popped in to ask if Springfield commonly saw tornado watches in June. When he replied he didn’t think so, the congressman was informed that one had been declared.
“The next thing I know I get a call from my Springfield office that a tornado was in full bloom,” Neal recalls.
Neal got a sense of how serious it was when he learned that some trees had been uprooted in Springfield’s Court Square. “Because I knew how big those trees were,” says the former mayor.
When he arrived the next morning, he was stunned by the amount of damage in Springfield’s East Forest Park neighborhood. He recalls feeling disoriented while driving down Island Pond Road because all the century-old trees that stood as landmarks were gone.
In the coming days he would visit all communities in his district that were affected by the tornado. The amount of the damage was unlike anything he had seen and compared only to historic photos he had seen of deadly floods and hurricanes from the 1930s and 1950s.
Neal believes the most important part of the story of the tornado is how quickly communities rebuilt and the role that the federal government played through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The federal government put up some $120 million in aid for communities. The response to the tornado is an example of the “national principle” where the federal government comes to assist with local disasters, according to Neal.
“If there’s a flood in Alabama, we come to the aid of Alabama. If there are wild fires in California, we come to the aid or California,” he says. “If there’s a tornado in Springfield, we come to the aid of Springfield. We don’t have Republican tornados or Democratic tornados.”
Tsagaris, of Ludlow, now 28, was in downtown Springfield, waiting for his dad to pick him up to give him a ride to his job. He was outside the LA Fitness gym on East Columbus Avenue when he noticed the sky turn a strange shade of green.
Then he heard what sounded like a train, which wasn’t unusual because railroad tracks are close by. Only he never saw a train.
He glanced up and saw a funnel cloud heading right for him. He said he ran into the gym and screamed, “Holy (expletive)! There’s a tornado!”
All the people who were running on treadmills and riding stationary bikes looked out the windows, saw the funnel cloud and, then, really started moving.
Tsagaris remembers the panic and pandemonium, people running around looking for shelter and massive bodybuilder types turning into quivering masses of jelly.
“It was pretty weird,” he says.
The building shook, televisions on the walls started dancing, and then … nothing. “And, as quick as it came, it stopped,” he remembers.
When his dad finally arrived, there was no point in going to work that day, as his employer, Murphy’s Law, a Main Street cafe in the city’s South End, got hammered by the tornado. It never reopened.
Tsagaris, who works as a salesman for a distributing company, is now on the road a lot. He religiously follows the weather reports. On hot, humid days in the summer, he finds himself scanning the skyline for that same shade of green he has only seen once.
“I was always interested in tornados. I always found them fascinating,” he says. “Then one found me.”
Students attending the into the Minnechaug Regional High School prom on June 1, 2011 head into the MassMutual Center after the tornado hit. The Republican file / Dave Roback
Chan Thar Pye Son remembers June 1 for two things: the tornado and his senior prom.
He was among the 100 students attending the Minnechaug Regional High School prom at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield a few hours after the tornado.
Then, as now, he recalls thinking it was in poor taste to be doing the Electric Slide, while in the same building people who lost their homes were sleeping in cots.
“As for mood, the tornado probably added some macabre excitement, as well as being depressing,” he says. “I remember people dancing and enjoying themselves at prom, but upon leaving, the reality of the situation hit us right back in the face.”
He spent the night sleeping at a friend’s house because he could not make it home because of downed trees and power lines.
Before the prom, he gathered with some friends in Wilbraham, and they were all going to share a limousine to Springfield. Then, the skies got dark and they could see the funnel cloud heading toward them. A lot of people headed for the basement. He was not among them.
“I, being an idiot, stayed up with a few adults to watch the tornado,” he said. “It missed the house but only barely.”
Trees were down all over the neighborhood. Neighbors with chainsaws had to clear the driveway for the limo to get out.
And, then, he and his friends rode to downtown Springfield, taking basically the reverse route of the tornado.
They had no idea how extensive the damage was — but seeing all the downed trees and damaged buildings, they had an idea it was serious.
Still a Wilbraham resident, Chan Thar Pye Son has spent much of the past year working with a company providing COVID assistance in Asia. Finding return flights home in the pandemic has proven tough, he said.
When asked if he ever remembers the tornado with all that has happened in the past year, he replies, “A freak tornado during senior year prom that, if it had veered 20 feet towards the house I was at, would have killed me? A stray thought or two might enter my head every now and then.”
Deshais was living in Palmer at the time of the tornado, which put her north of its path of destruction. But, when she learned a friend’s home in Monson was damaged, she immediately wanted to help.
“I packed a backpack full of water, trash bags, first aide items and drove to the area. Many roads were closed, so I parked my car and walked down Bethany Road,” she says.
At first, nothing seemed out of place, but, then, she saw a man struggling to carry packing boxes and several rolls of tape. She offered to help carry them to his home.
“As we came over the hill by the cemetery, the devastation came into view. It was unreal,” she says.
There were dozens of trees, either uprooted or sheared off, several homes and vehicles damaged or destroyed and debris from homes scattered all over.
“I continued walking with the man until he stopped and said ‘This is it.’ The only thing that remained of his home was a front door with the number 11 on it.”
What remained of his possessions was scattered in an “endless field of debris,” a sight Deshais says she’ll never forget. It was repeated again and again on the different streets as she made her way to her friend’s house, which was itself destroyed.
She would spend the next few days helping her friend retrieving what he could from the wreckage.
At first, Deshais and her husband joined a group that was offering to go out with chainsaws to remove downed trees. She met up with people at the damaged First Church of Monson where the efforts were being coordinated. In another time, that would have been how it went: put up posters, coordinate a time and place for people to meet.
But in 2011 the social media revolution was underway, and Facebook, launched only seven years earlier and just entering the mainstream, proved to be an ideal way to alert and assemble large amounts of people. Deshais met up with Laura Sauriol, of Monson, who had just started a Facebook page called Monson Tornado Watch. She says it was a great way to get the word out to aid those in need and recruit those who wanted to help.
At its peak, the page had more than 1,600 followers. Deshais also set up a website and a telephone hotline under the banner Monson Tornado-Volunteers.
By the end of June, 30 days out from the tornado, Deshais and other volunteers would be coordinating people willing to help with people who needed help. There was also tons of water, food and supplies coming in that needed to be sorted and distributed.
“People came by the hundreds every day, either delivering donations of food, supplies, or cash donations, or coming to physically help with recovery,” she remembers. ”The response from people throughout the Northeast was inspiring.”
Photos by The Republican’s Don Treeger show children at Ashmun and Central streets in Springfield shortly after the tornado hit, and the intersection in May 2021. Drag the slider in the center of the image, and click here if the image doesn’t load on your device.
“The community was so strong, brought together by a horrible disaster, but everyone did what they could, and then did more,” she says. “I met many people during the recovery that I still count among my close friends. It reminds me of soldiers who have been in battle together, you form bonds with those whom you have served beside.”
Deshais now lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a place that endures several hurricane warnings a year, and she takes each one of them every seriously.
“I know how fast things can become dangerous as well as life changing. I hope to never witness that kind of destruction again in my lifetime,” she says. “But if I do, I know that good people will be there to help.”
Everyone did what they could, and then did more.
When the first tornado alerts sounded, Riley and her two young sons sought shelter in the basement of their home. Once the warning passed and she learned of the damage, her first instinct was to offer to help. Initially told by the American Red Cross to fill out an application and someone would be in touch in a few weeks, “hat wasn’t good enough,” she says. “There were homeless people, babies without diapers or bottles. I felt like I was needed now, so I took to Facebook.”
Through a Facebook page, she, too, brought together people to help those who needed it.
That first post came one day after the tornado, on June 2: “OK everyone… I am starting a grass-roots effort here,” it reads. “Please pass the word and help me out. Our neighbors need us.”
The second post reads” “Everything is needed!!! Please help us!!!”
“We met in parking lots, we went to people’s homes,” she recounts. They gathered needed supplies, like food, water and clothing, and then distributed it to people who literally had lost everything.
They cleared brush and help people dig out from under the wreckage.
They built a barn to help a Brimfield family who lost theirs and needed a place for their horses.
Through the Facebook page, people from outside the area volunteered to give their time, labor and materials to help people in a small town that many had probably never heard of before.
When she thinks of the tornado – and she does quite frequently, Riley says it is impossible to separate the good from the bad.
She remembers the terror of of people huddling in their cellars, the horror of people finding they have lost everything and then the beauty of people, often strangers, coming together to help their community get back to its feet.
“I met the love of my life through the volunteer efforts, and we got married two years ago,” Riley says. “She was definitely a silver lining.”
Ten years later, Riley downplays her role, saying that all she did was ask for help, and people from all over stepped up to provide it. “It wasn’t me; it was us,” she said.